Sunday, November 28, 2010

"Books protect me from aimless wandering, from hasty conclusions."

I give up.

I haven't been able to connect with Vilnius Poker, by Ričardas Gavelis. Despite really wanting to. This failure, on the book's part, to click with me, is making me angry. I'm trying to understand my reaction to this book; it's like I'm determined not to like it now.

"Books protect me from aimless wandering, from hasty conclusions (p145)."

As of this writing, I'm on page 191 of 485. I feel like I need to write about this book, but how can I, fairly, if I haven't read the whole thing? I thought, I'll finish part 1 at least, that'd be a fair sample. But I can't do it. It's a tough slog. And it's colouring my life. It's making me cranky. I owe it to myself to read something I enjoy, don't I?

I have no idea what Vilnius Poker is about.

In most descriptions of the book, much seems to be made of the fact that Vytautas Vargalis, the narrator of the first section, works in a library, cataloguing stuff to which no one will have ever access. It adds a level of absurdity to his circumstances, to life under Soviet rule, to his worldview, but only a few paragraphs here and there deal with the library. As far as I can make out, it's a nonessential layer.

Just a little bit of research makes some of the symbolism in the book quite obvious.

Gediminas (Gedis for short) Riauba, friend of Vytautas, and murder victim (I think), I sometimes confused with a location, a street. Gediminas Avenue is named for the 14th century Grand Duke, a pagan who resisted Christianization and cultural assimilation. Quite clearly he is brought back to life by Gavelis as Gedis, symbol of all that is true and right. ("They even call our Gedis 'The Grand Duke of Lithuania' (p150).")

The Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania (situated on Gediminas Avenue) is named for the author and the editor of the first printed book in the Lithuanian language (16th century). It can't be a coincidence that the keeper of this library's secrets (I mean, the one in Vilnius Poker — is it ever clearly identified by name or by geography as being the national library? No, I think it's the city library.) is named Martynas (also a writer).

As for the Matrix-like workings of reality, all under the tight control of Them, well, that's just the great Soviet metaphor.

I came here looking for something: a thing, and animal, or a person. A thing, an animal, or a person? It's trivial, it's all nothing. A mysterious object that means something to me couldn't turn up here. The only life her is the cockroaches, dazed by the light, crawling out of the cracks. The gray ruler of Old Town's streets, the short, neckless spiderman, will surely not show up her. So why should I find an answer in this universe of boiled cabbage, vodka, and deformed faces? However, something tells me to wait just precisely here. The memory of the neckless spiderman won't give me peace. I sit and look at everyone in turn, not putting my hopes on anything until my glance stumbles upon an unusual, unexpected figure of a man who doesn't fit in here. I could swear he wasn't here a second ago. He sprang from the earth every wrinkle in his face every fold in his clothes, screams and shouts that he didn't get here the way everyone else did. He has some sort of secret purpose. And his purpose can only be me. I feel a sharp pang in my chest; my hand pours the rest of the tumbler into my mouth of its own accord. The man looks straight at me. His eyes are brimming with quiet and . . . wait, wait . . . yes, a sweetish smell of rot. I have already seen his beautiful, elegant hands, so out of place next to the dirty shirt and frayed remains of a jacket. I already know he's come for me, but I have no idea what he could want from me (I don't want anything from him).

Don't tell me he'll simply take me out to the street and push me under a passing truck? I'm not Gedis, after all. Gedis knew something, and I'm just barely beginning to speculate. Perhaps he came to intimidate me, to break me, to take away my will? The man stands up, rises to his full, gigantic height, and approaches. I look only at him, at his glassy eyes with narrow pupils, and I know him, I know him well.

"Hello, Vytie."

It seems a hundred thunderclaps should roar; it seems the entire Narutis should sink straight into the ground. The man pats my hand. I don't pull it away because across from me sits my father.

There are some interesting aspects. There is beautiful conspiracy-minded paranoia. There are surreal dream sequences. There are some lovely, crazy passages, regarding the meaning of life, as well as both sense of self and sense of national identity. But I read Vilnius Poker as an immature mess, and I don't understand all the praise it has garnered.

Some readability problems. For example, the use of "pathologic" as a noun. It took me 100 pages of repeated stumbling to realize this was meant as a play, on a type of logic. As much as I disdain the senseless use of hyphens after prefixes, and in my work I attempt to eradicate them everywhere, here's a case where a hyphen might've proved useful. I get a lot more sense out of "patho-logic." Or how about a translator's note? The one note so far, regarding Stalin/Sralin, seems like a translator's cop-out, and a missed opportunity to create something clever. Typos also, like "a release value" (for "a release valve"). And why not translate "Tuteiša" (the title of part 3)? (If that's the same as what it sounds like in Polish, it's local, or native, or one from around these parts (feminine).)

So, I'm hating this book. For trying to be enigmatic without being subtle. For the angry-young-man posturing. For the disturbing sexual images, to which I hesitate to ascribe any misogyny per se — for me the tone is merely juvenile, it has the tone of a 14-year-old boy's masturbatory fantasy, like the cover art of genre paperbacks — although, it seems the treatment of women is much more offensive later in the book.

For using the excuse of a Lithuanian soul to pass off unformed ideas as high poetry, as grand literature.

To me it has all the immaturity of the newly realized Slavic and Baltic states. The sense of entitlement, of being overlooked, of demanding some acknowledgement, of demanding to be treated like a grown-up while needing your hand held. This feels like literature that has yet to grow up, though it does seem to capture rather neatly a certain zeitgeist throughout an affected area at the tail end of the Soviet era.

Vilnius Poker reminds me of something Polish I read in the last decade (oh, what was it?), something overflowing with anger and directionlessness, almost like it's outside of the author's control, like it really is a symptom of diseased times.

It reminds me also a little of Victor Pelevin, the chaotic mood of Homo Zapiens, completely out of control. But, while I appreciated the frenzy of that book, I think (if I may say so, based on my having read a grand total of two of his books) Pelevin evolved, matured, to show a more measured control (in Helmet of Horror, anyway).

There's a hint of China Miéville here too, although in The City & the City Miéville puts the paranoia and the politics and the philosophizing to the service of great storytelling. Gavelis meanwhile piles it all up with shit and just dumps it on you.

Perhaps it is because I have a faint family connection to Polish Lithuania, to Wilno, that I am unable to see the real Lithuania. I connect to Vilnius only through the eyes of its oppressors.

"Vilnius, the city of Polish poets: the city of both Mickiewicz and Miłosz (p28)." I suppose these names are called up rather disparagingly, but they are strong names, claimed by Poland, and somewhat ironic emblems of (Polish) national identity. "Now Gedis is playing solitude, a sodden, slow Vilnius solitude, he plays so sadly, softly, sadly, almost Chopin, but the others don't want to allow it (p154)." Chopin, Polish. A couple references also to Roman Polanski, Polish, as creative genius. Granted, genius transcends the boundaries of nationality, but why then does it matter at all that this is Lithuania, that this is Vilnius?

Excerpt.

I give up.

7 comments:

Richard said...

You made it about 80 pages further than I did, Isabella, which is kind of funny considering we were both turned off by many of the same things (I even got annoyed by the overuse of paranoid italics, though). Not sure I understand your equation of Gavelis' personal "entitlement" with the alleged political entitlement of the new Slavic and Baltic states, but I do agree that he was guilty of posturing as a writer and of creating what you call an "immature mess." Which is a shame to me because I really enjoyed the work for about the first 50 pages or so and have enjoyed reading the background stuff you, Anthony, and Emily all dug up for your posts. Weird!

Emily said...

For me, the middle two narrators made a big difference in how cohesive (and even offensive) I found the book - the immaturity in the first 300 pages ended up working for me because the last 200 pages acknowledged it as a product of Vargalys's experiences, e.g., he wasn't given the opportunity to mature, so he's kind of a permanently psychotic 14-year-old.

That said, I can completely understand reactions like yours and Richard's. The first section is a really long slog if you're not enjoying the writing, and I can relate to both your criticisms of it. Hardly worth persevering with a book that's making your life worse, in any case!

E. L. Fay said...

If you liked China Miéville's The City & The City and are willing to give Central/Eastern European lit another try (and I hope you do), I strongly recommend Michal Ajvaz's The Other City. (It's Czech.) It's even more Matrix-y than The Matrix.

I'm almost done with Vilnius Poker. Although I do like it, I can nevertheless totally understand where you're coming from. Yeah, the misogyny in the first part is horrifying and immature but it's also meant to be the POV of a diseased mind, so that made it semi-tolerable for me. This is definitely a divisive, controversial book, though.

tuulenhaiven said...

I agree with E.L. Fay and Emily that all the things that I intensely disliked in the first section made sense once given more framework by the 2nd and 3rd narratives. Still extremely difficult reading though. I almost gave it up repeatedly. Having finished it I'm kind of mad that Gavelis made me suffer so much in order to appreciate in the end what he was doing. Oh well. Thanks for the interesting details about some of the name symbolism.

Anthony said...

The marked polarity of opinion around Vilnius Poker is captivating. This isn't a book that you can glide aimlessly through, it demands commitment. Whether it rewards that commitment is down to personal predilection.

I was drawn to the Vargalys's negative energy. The ugliness of his unappealing views are a direct consequence of his trauma. This is not a narrator that is capable of sympathy, pity for sure.

I agree completely with this profound statement of yours:

To me it has all the immaturity of the newly realized Slavic and Baltic states. The sense of entitlement, of being overlooked, of demanding some acknowledgement, of demanding to be treated like a grown-up while needing your hand held.

So true, and where you see immaturity I see intent. Is this not precisely what Gavelis wishes to achieve. The living Vilnius he depicts is not a place he wishes us to visit: it is broken, ugly, malign.

Isabella said...

Negative energy! I still can't put my finger on what it is that bothers me so much about this book, and part of me does want to see the rest of the book through, but I think I spent too much of the 90s hanging around with angry young Poles — not sure I can survive that much more fruitless, wheel-spinning negativity again.

"he wasn't given the opportunity to mature, so he's kind of a permanently psychotic 14-year-old." Like Lithuania! All these states demanding to be taken seriously, treated like grown-ups, and they're simply not equipped. They're adolescent states.

If there's a pay-off to this book, I don't think it's fair. I'm a pretty tough reader, I stick books out, I get a lot out of them. For me to give up is not a light matter. So that pisses me off. I get the feeling Gavelis is playing literary bad boy; I hope not too much worthier Lithuanian literature is being neglected while he hogs the media attention.

Thanks, EL Fay for the tip re Ajvaz. I'll look it up.

Isabella said...

Negative energy! I still can't put my finger on what it is that bothers me so much about this book, and part of me does want to see the rest of the book through, but I think I spent too much of the 90s hanging around with angry young Poles — not sure I can survive that much more fruitless, wheel-spinning negativity again.

"he wasn't given the opportunity to mature, so he's kind of a permanently psychotic 14-year-old." Like Lithuania! All these states demanding to be taken seriously, treated like grown-ups, and they're simply not equipped. They're adolescent states.

If there's a pay-off to this book, I don't think it's fair. I'm a pretty tough reader, I stick books out, I get a lot out of them. For me to give up is not a light matter. So that pisses me off. I get the feeling Gavelis is playing literary bad boy; I hope not too much worthier Lithuanian literature is being neglected while he hogs the media attention.

Thanks, EL Fay for the tip re Ajvaz. I'll look it up.